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Minister launches review of B.C. port strike looking for ‘structural issues’

Goal: ‘harmonious working environment’ between unions and employers in future collective bargaining
Gantry cranes sit idle as a container ship is docked at port during a work stoppage, in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan is launching an examination of the recently resolved British Columbia port dispute to see if “structural issues” in negotiations led to a 13-day work stoppage. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan is launching an examination of the recently resolved British Columbia port dispute to see if “structural issues” in negotiations led to a 13-day work stoppage last month.

In a written statement released Wednesday through social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, O’Regan said officials will immediately begin by reviewing reports on previous, similar disputes.

O’Regan said the goal is to create “a harmonious working environment” between unions and employers in future collective bargaining, in order to prevent future stoppages similar to the port strike from happening.

“Another dispute and disruption on that scale is still possible, and that’s not good enough,” O’Regan said in the statement. “The workers and businesses that depend on our ports deserve long-term solutions. They deserve answers.”

The port labour dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada representing about 7,400 workers and the BC Maritime Employers Association came to an end last Friday, when the union announced its members voted almost 75 per cent in favour of ratifying a new deal.

But the unrest had been tumultuous.

Workers went on strike from July 1 to July 13, freezing the movement of billions of dollars worth of cargo at some of the country’s busiest ports.

A tentative deal halted that strike action, but when the union caucus said it wanted to reject the contract, there was a brief return to pickets on July 18.

The Canada Industrial Relations Board ruled that move illegal without notice, forcing employees back to work the next day.

A full union membership vote rejected the tentative agreement on July 28, and O’Regan directed the industrial relations board to consider imposing a deal or binding arbitration on the two sides.

The union and employers announced they had reached a new deal with the help of the board on July 30, and it was ratified by last week’s union vote.

In a written statement, BCMEA president and CEO Mike Leonard indicated employers may be interested in taking part in O’Regan’s efforts to improve “port labour relations structure,” saying the association welcomed the government review as an “opportunity to modernize” the process.

Groups such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce have called for “new tools” to settle labour disputes in critical supply-chain sectors, with the federation asking for the designation of ports as essential services.

Labour experts, however, said the federal government may have limited options to prevent similar strikes from happening when talks hit an impasse, as was the case with the B.C. port dispute.

University of Manitoba associate professor of Labour Studies David Camfield said workers’ right to strike in Canada is already “very narrowly circumscribed,” with only unionized workers eligible to take job action at a specific time after a collective agreement has expired.

Camfield said a push by the government to further limit strike action during collective negotiations — an act protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — may end up triggering legal challenges and getting bogged down in courts.

“I can understand why there are business groups putting pressure on the federal government to further restrict it, particularly for some kinds of workers,” Camfield said. “But this is already a pretty restricted right.”

Camfield said the number of strikes in Canada has not grown as fast as those in other countries such as the United States, and pales in comparison to the frequency of job action between the 1960s and the 1980s.

“The relative impact of strikes on the economy is actually really low compared to what it once was,” he said. “But the tolerance level for inconvenience and disruption also has dropped, and so when workers like these port workers exercised their legal right, some people act like the sky is falling.”

University of British Columbia professor emeritus Mark Thompson said a post-mortem of the port strike by someone not involved in the negotiations would likely show that “all of the parties were rather inept” in causing the work stoppage, and structural changes to labour relations are not warranted.

“Longshoring strikes cause economic damage, which is usually made up rather quickly,” he said. “Stories of economic losses are greatly exaggerated … more skilled negotiators on both sides, plus the mediator, might well have ended this strike more quickly without direct intervention by the government.”

Thompson said the strike may have been avoided if the employers addressed the union’s non-wage concerns such as contracting out and job protection earlier in the negotiations.

Terms of the deal ratified by both the union and the BC Maritime Employers Association released by the CIRB this week included a commitment by employers to train workers to perform maintenance on new equipment.

Contracting out maintenance work to third parties had been one of the most contentious issues during the dispute.

The four-year agreement also contains several terms about workers’ compensation, including boosts to hourly wages to a base rate of $57.51 by 2026.

There are also increases in the “Modernization and Mechanization retirement lump sum,” bringing that payout to $96,250 in 2026 for eligible retirees, over and above normal pension entitlements.

READ ALSO: Long-term effects of strikes still emerging: UVic economist

READ ALSO: Port strike will have ‘dire’ effect on supply chain: BC Chamber of Commerce